Science is on his dance card

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Science is on his dance card
“The Mathematics of Consciousness”, one of visual artist Charles Atlas’s largest installations, projects multiple moving images across the brick wall lined with windows at Pioneer Works in Red Hook, Brooklyn on July 27, 2002. Atlas started his video career with Merce Cunningham, but his new Pioneer Works project shows how many leaps he has taken since. Timothy O'Connell/The New York Times.

by Ted Loos

NEW YORK, NY.- On a hot day in July, pioneering film and video maker Charles Atlas seemed a little anxious about his latest sprawling piece, “The Mathematics of Consciousness,” opening Sept. 9 at Pioneer Works, the nonprofit cultural center in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

It is one of his largest installations, projecting multiple moving images across a 100-foot-long brick wall lined with windows, and ranks as “the most challenging” of his career, said Atlas, 73, sporting his signature bright orange sideburns, a longtime signifier of his downtown ethos.

“I’ve been in a bad mood about this piece,” he said, sitting at a computer in the long, narrow space as he tested out combinations of videos and tried to sync them up elegantly. “I’m less worried now, but I don’t know how it’s going to turn out.”

Asked how long he would be making changes to the work, he replied, “What time do we open?” — meaning that it could be truly last-minute.

Atlas made his breakthrough as filmmaker-in-residence for the legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham with early works like “Walkaround Time” (1973), an ode to Marcel Duchamp that included both dance footage and behind-the-scenes moments. Given his background in performance, curtain times still have a real power over Atlas, who is known for worrying over decisions in any case.

“He’s the hardest-working person I have ever met,” said Stuart Comer, the Museum of Modern Art’s chief curator of media and performance art.

The “Mathematics of Consciousness” may run only a half-hour or so (at last count), but it is a complex mix: For the artwork, which runs through Nov. 20, Atlas blends some of his own greatest hits from the last 50 years with new computer-generated images that touch on what he called “science-y and math-y” topics including quantum mechanics, an area of interest that is relatively recent. Those themes fit well into the science- and technology-inflected programming at Pioneer Works, which in July teamed up with Scientific American to do a talk about the James Webb Space Telescope.

“As I get older, without wanting to, I find myself thinking about bigger things,” said Atlas, who lives in downtown Manhattan with his longtime partner, writer Joe Westmoreland.

Atlas has always been a nimble adopter of new technology, and that extends to Instagram and TikTok. He has included in his new work some TikTok videos of people dancing to Lizzo’s “About Damn Time.”

The variety of the selections demonstrates Atlas’ unusual trajectory, from documenting with his camera to creating moving images like a more typical video artist — and then ending up in a hybrid form that also integrates elements of performance art.

As he worked, he filled 26 of the rectangular window spaces in Pioneer Works, as he did with footage from his 1973 work “Mayonnaise Number One,” in which choreographer and dancer Douglas Dunn dons a red hat in an homage to a Degas painting.

At other times Atlas’ images — a jumbled field of numbers falling like snowflakes, a drawing of a human brain drifting to the left — covered both the windows and the bricks.

“It’s about manipulating the architecture, and making the wall alive,” Atlas said.

The quirks of the space were a feature, not a bug, for the artist, said Gabriel Florenz, the founding artistic director of Pioneer Works, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this fall.

“It’s a weird space to work with, it’s not a white box,” Florenz said. “Charles liked that — he’s into interventions.”

As Comer put it, “Charles has a sophisticated spatial sense. He understands how to activate architecture.”

Atlas is also a collaboration specialist, a bent that began with Cunningham but has since included Andy Warhol, Yvonne Rainer and Nam June Paik. His 1986 work “Hail the New Puritan” is a fictionalized work about the life of Scottish dancer Michael Clark — ​​who merged punk and ballet — with production design by performance artist Leigh Bowery. Atlas calls it an “anti-documentary,” and in some ways it anticipated the mockumentary trend.

“He opens up the other artist’s practice,” said Mika Tajima, a conceptual artist who is one of Atlas’ two collaborators on the Pioneer Works project. (The other, Lazar Bozic, composed the music.)

Working with the video artist, Tajima added, was “wild and exciting. It’s like having your universe ripped open.”

Tajima’s contribution — which stands directly opposite Atlas’ projections — is a stage set with a surrealist bent. Scaffolding supports large depictions of hands, as well as javelins “which go through the hands like a needle at giant scale, representing acupuncture pressure points,” Tajima said.

A few special performances will take place on the stage at Pioneer Works, including one at the end of the show’s run in November that Atlas calls a “video improvisation,” featuring himself and Austrian artist Fennesz.

Atlas has always mined the differences between himself and his partners for artistic gold, particularly in joint projects with performance artist Marina Abramovic, who is best known for her 2010 MoMA exhibition “The Artist Is Present.”

They collaborated several times, beginning when producers of a Spanish television series asked him to make a video portrait of her. It resulted in 1989’s “SSS,” which features Abramovic wearing a crown of live, slithering snakes. (“One was poisonous,” Atlas noted.)

Abramovic relished their contrasts. “We had a blind date on that project, and he was the opposite of me,” she said. “He had the flaming orange hair, I was strict-looking in a brown suit.” She added, “For me, everything has to be minimal. For him, it’s over the top.”

Abramovic added, “We had so much fun together, we’d say, ‘This is insane, let’s do it.’”

For “Delusional,” in 1994, Atlas collaborated with her on a multimedia performance that took place on a clear glass stage over a “rat disco” of hundreds of live rats in a Frankfurt, Germany, theater. (It was photographed but never videotaped.)

The piece drew on Abramovic’s upbringing in Belgrade, Serbia, with a grisly story of a rat catcher suggesting that circumstances are what often lead to violence among people, and she came out in a Rat Queen costume designed by Bowery. But one night things went awry when some of the rats escaped and started attacking each other.

“Everyone started screaming, and they ran away,” Abramovic recalled of the audience reaction. “They really freaked out.”

Atlas, the co-creator of those avant-garde flourishes, got his start in the Midwest. Raised in St. Louis, he went to Swarthmore College but dropped out and moved to New York, where he “nearly starved” at first, he said.

In 1969, while working as a stage manager, a theater colleague who was working as an archivist for Cunningham asked if Atlas could help stage a performance in Rome.

He was moved into a role behind the camera despite being a total novice. “Merce was interested in doing a video,” Atlas recalled. “He asked me to collaborate with him, so I learned it from a book and I taught it to him.”

Though he stopped working full time with Cunningham in 1983, he went back and worked with Cunningham on several later projects.

The art world never quite figured out what to do with Atlas as he pursued his distinctive path, which began with 16-mm film and gradually moved to video over the years.

“What I did wasn’t considered part of the art world,” he said. “It was in between the cracks. Film and video were separate things, so if you worked in both, that was considered really bad.” He didn’t have a gallery until 1999 and is currently represented by Luhring Augustine.

At the same time, he earned a reputation as an artist’s artist. “Within the art world, he’s a mythical legend,” said Florenz, who recalled seeing Atlas’s “The Legend of Leigh Bowery” (2002) as a teenager.

““He seemed to be in a category of his own,” said Florenz, who in 2019 met Atlas for the first time and described himself as a “fan boy.”

The meeting led to the commission for “Mathematics of Consciousness,” the title of which seems to also refer to the thought process that has gone into the work itself.

In a phone conversation a few weeks after the session in Red Hook, it seemed to dawn on Atlas what the piece was really about: “In a way,” he said, “it’s a self-portrait of my brain.”

Charles Atlas: The Mathematics of Consciousness

Sept. 9 through Nov. 20, Pioneer Works, 159 Pioneer St., Brooklyn, (716) 596-3001;

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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